After an audit released last week that amounted to a complete and utter indictment of the Food and Drug Administration, Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt yesterday admitted "our [food safety] system is not adequate for the future."
But making a system that is might be hard when Leavitt's boss, President Bush, has already vetoed a bill that would give a modest, five percent increase in agency funding.
"Money doesn't solve everything but it does indicate the nation's priorities," Ted Kennedy said at a Senate Health, Education and Labor Committee hearing yesterday. "The FDA does not have the capacity to ensure the safety of the nation's food."
Kennedy's assertion was backed by a FDA Scientific Advisory Panel Board report he highlighted that blasted the lack of qualified scientists, inspectors, staff, information technology resources and agency mission.
"FDA is engaged in a reactive, fire-fighting regulatory posture instead of pursuing a culture of proactive regulatory science," the panel concluded. And it was a good thing they took the time to find this out because FDA inspector's reports, "are still handwritten and not rapidly analyzed."
Saying he had a "master plan" to improve the FDA, Leavitt sort of defended the White House. He said that money was not as important as the need to better communicate and reach understanding with China to prevent more incidents like the imported toxic toothpaste this summer. And he urged the coordination of 12 government agencies for greater food and drug safety. Still, he noted that those agencies would need across-the-board upgrades in resources.
Republican Senators like Wayne Allard of Colorado were more loyal to Bush's proclamations, viewing the issue instead as one of educating food processors and consumers. "Make sure your hamburger is well-cooked," the Senator counseld. "Don't let mayonnaise and eggs sit in the sun."
Democrats countered Allard's compelling arguments by saying government might have have to do more than education to protect the food supply. "It's fun to bash government, it's everybody's game," said Washington Democratic Senator Patti Murray. "But government is the one that regulates this."
What money the government has in 2008 to make regulations will say a lot about how much, or little, a Democratic Congress has affected the Bush Administration.